In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone is probably going to die from this cold, so start planning her memorial right now. She will also recap every episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer with an eye to the following themes:
- Sex is the real villain of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe.
- Giles is totally in love with Buffy.
- Joyce is a fucking terrible parent.
- Willow’s magic is utterly useless (this one won’t be an issue until season 2, when she gets a chance to become a witch)
- Xander is a textbook Nice Guy.
- The show isn’t as feminist as people claim.
- All the monsters look like wieners.
- If ambivalence to possible danger were an Olympic sport, Team Sunnydale would take the gold.
- Angel is a dick.
- Harmony is the strongest female character on the show.
- Team sports are portrayed in an extremely negative light.
- Some of this shit is racist as fuck.
- Science and technology are not to be trusted.
WARNING: Some people have mentioned they’re watching along with me, and that’s awesome, but I’ve seen the entire series already and I’ll probably mention things that happen in later seasons. So… you know, take that under consideration, if you’re a person who can’t enjoy something if you know future details about it.
This is one of my all-time favorite episodes of BtVS, because it’s about one of my biggest fears: ventriloquism. I am terrified of ventriloquists and their dummies. The only one I’ve ever really liked was Lamb Chop, but only because she was really a sock puppet. Sherri Lewis remains suspect, even in death.
It’s also, dare I say, one of the least problematic episodes. Sexual Harassment Dummy aside, there’s really nothing glaringly wrong in this episode, and hardly anything on our handy list of issues gets used! Huzzah! We can just enjoy ourselves!
Anyway, I really liked the way this episode duped me into believing one thing for a really long time, then flipped it, and genuinely surprised me.
We get a weird angled shot of a stretching ballerina’s crotch while a scary voice promises that he will be whole and new. Then the camera zooms around a bunch of kids practicing various talents, from the tuba to magic to an awkward looking kid holding a really scary ventriloquist’s dummy:
Giles: “He thought it would behoove me to have more contact with the students. I did try to explain that my vocational choice of librarian was a deliberate attempt to minimize said contact, but he would have none of it.”
WTF is wrong with this school? Remember, from the vantage point of an outside observer, Giles is spending a lot of time having hushed, urgent conversations with these three students in the library, sometimes after hours. One of these girls has a picture of the two of them together in her locker. And they think this guy needs to spend more time around kids? Yes, we know he’s a Watcher and he doesn’t want to be one, and he certainly doesn’t like spending time around teenagers, but nobody else in Sunnydale knows this. Without that crucial piece of evidence, things are just getting creepier and creepier.
Hey, there’s an interesting angle of Giles that I’ve actually never considered before… he told Buffy in “Never Kill a Boy on The First Date” that he didn’t want to be a Watcher. So, in a way, Giles and Buffy are living parallel lives, enslaved to destinies they had no say in.
Anyway, Buffy has to crack on Giles a little bit, because that’s their schtick:
Buffy: “Giles, into every generation is born one who must run the annual talentless show. You cannot escape your destiny.”
Giles tells Buffy that if she had any decency, she would help him, and she tells him she’s going to do what he usually does, and just watch. Willow and Xander get in on the teasing, too, but their satisfaction is short-lived, because HEY IT’S QUARK!
Morgan’s dummy starts sexually harassing the girls and insisting that he’s real, and Buffy threatens to burn him. Because as we all know from her transcripts, Buffy is excellent and burning stuff down. Giles walks in, enduring Principal Snyder’s lengthy diatribe about how fucking awful teenagers are:
Snyder: “Kids today need discipline. It’s not a popular word these days, discipline. I know Principal Flutie would have said, ‘Kids need understanding, kids are human beings.’ That’s the kind of wooly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten.”
Giles listens to all this and tries to stammer a word in edge-wise, but it’s clear from his reaction to Snyder’s monologue that what Giles is really thinking is, “Jesus, this guy hates kids even more than I do.” There will be no bonding here.
Tuba Girl: “I didn’t know her too well. There’s that whole dancer/band rivalry, you know?
Snyder: “There are things I will not tolerate: students loitering on campus after school, horrible murders with hearts being removed. And also smoking.
Dedication to the future of America.
Buffy insists she doesn’t do anything from the proscribed actions list, and Snyder warns her that he knows something is up with her, and he’s going to figure out what. So, basically he’s the only person in Sunnydale that actually notices what the students in the high school are doing, ever, but he’s also the person who hates them the most.
Buffy tells Snyder she’s supposed to get something from Morgan’s locker, but when she opens the dummy’s case, it’s empty.
So, who was watching this go down?
Buffy: “It was like it pounced on my face.”
Xander: “Like a cat?”
Buffy: “Yeah, exactly. But when I turned the lights on it was already gone. I think it went out my window”
Xander: “Like a cat.”
Buffy: “Yeah. No!”
Giles suggests that Buffy had a nightmare about dummies, and despite her insistence that she’s the Slayer and she knows something funny is going on, they all pretty much agree that Morgan is probably just murdering people. But to err on the side of caution, Giles has researched a group of demons who masquerade as teenagers and need to steal certain human organs every seven years to keep from reverting to their original, ooky forms.
Hey, isn’t it funny that Anthony Head was in an episode of Buffy where people were getting their organs stolen, and then he was in Repo! The Genetic Opera stealing people’s organs?
Anyway, Giles tells them about how the demons are super strong, and Morgan is getting weaker and weaker. So no choices have really been eliminated here. Morgan could still be the murderer, he might just be the murderer who kills people because he needs to conceal his demon bits for another seven years.
Buffy is in class when Morgan’s dummy (who is sitting at Morgan’s desk with him, and no one seems to have a problem with this) turns his head all the way around to creepily stare at her. Cordelia tells Buffy the dummy digs her, and they should tour together in a freak show. But Buffy doesn’t have time for Cordelia’s bully shenanigans at the moment, because this is an evil dummy emergency. When the teacher calls on Morgan and Sid smarts off to her, the teacher confiscates him and sticks him in a cupboard. When Morgan returns later to get the dummy, the teacher tries to connect with him, asking if there are problems at home. Morgan just wants Sid, but when the teacher goes to the cupboard to get him, he’s gone. Morgan flips out, saying Sid knew to wait for him and demanding to know what the teacher has done.
Willow: “Once again I’m banished to the demon section of the card catalogue.”
Remember when people knew what those were?
Giles: “You concentrate on reanimation theory, I’ll peck about in organ harvesting. Unless, of course, you prefer-“
Willow: “That’s okay. You can have the organs.“
Willow: “Look what I found in the section on toys and magic: ‘On rare occasions, inanimate objects of human quality, such as dolls and mannequins, already mystically possessed of consciousness, have acted upon their desire to become human by harvesting organs.”
Oh, well, as long as it’s rare then. Jesus, I’m not going to sleep for weeks, and I’m giving my rag doll John Denver the serious stink eye right now.
As she backs away from the horrible murder scene, a chandelier falls on her. Because it’s the theatre, and a chandelier always has to fall on somebody. When Buffy regains consciousness, we run into yet another example of how Slayer strength can conveniently fall by the wayside in favor of dramatic tension. In the past, we have seen Buffy rip doorknobs off with her bare hands, punch a lock into a locker to open it, easily pry the lid off a crate her mother couldn’t dislodge with a crowbar, and, oh yeah, fight vampires. But now, she can’t lift the chandelier off herself, even when a dummy starts attacking her with a knife. Come on, show. Regular, non-Slayer humans have been known to rise to enormous feats of strength in times of stress. You hear all the time about some random bystander lifting a burning car off an injured and trapped victim.
Sid: “You win. Now you can take your heart and your brain and move on.”
Buffy: “I’m sure they would have made great trophies for your case.”
Sid: “That would have been justice.”
Buffy: “Yeah, except for one thing: you lost, and now you’ll never be human.
Sid: “Yeah, well neither will you.”
Buffy and Sid together: “What?”
Back in the library, Sid shares his origin story with the Scoobies, who are all, well… they’re talking to a dummy. Just look at them:
Sid tells them he was a demon hunter who ended up cursed into the body of a ventriloquist dummy. Like you do. He’s been tracking down and killing these organ harvesting demons in the hopes of getting his curse lifted. He noticed Buffy’s super strength, and that made him believe she was the organ harvesting demon. Since the demon already has the heart and brain, he should move on. Sid is pretty sure the demon was in the talent show, so by process of elimination. whoever doesn’t show up is the demon. Giles heads to the auditorium to get all the students in a “power circle,” a theatre warm-up that Sid suggests. It’s all pretense to gather them in one place, so they can play “spot the missing demon.”
Backstage, Cordelia is having a freakout:
Cordelia: “I… I can’t go out there. All those people staring at me, and judging me, like I’m some kind of… Buffy. What if I mess up?”
Giles: “Cordelia, there’s an adage that, um, if you’re feeling nervous, then you should imagine the entire audience are in their underwear.”
Cordelia: “Ew! Even Mrs. Franklin?
Giles: “Perhaps not.”
Worst pep talk ever.
Buffy and Sid are up on the catwalk, keeping an eye on the situation on the stage. To kill time before the talent show contestants assemble, they discuss their demon-fighting lives. Buffy tells Sid she’s the Slayer, and he fondly remembers banging a Slayer in the 30’s, before he was a dummy. Buffy correctly deduces that when Sid kills the demon and is freed from his curse, he’ll die. But Sid tells her not to be sad, because he’s lived longer than most demon hunters, or Slayers. This is one of the first times we’re reminded of Buffy’s tenuous mortality. That’ll be important at the end of this season, and then it will be a running theme through the rest of the show. It’s worked in really slyly here. We’re not talking about the danger of Buffy’s life, but the fact that Sid is going to die. But the seed has been planted, we know a little more keenly now that Buffy’s life is destined to be brutal and short.
The talent acts assemble on stage briefly. None of the students are missing. Buffy jumps down from the catwalk to confer with Giles, and they both agree that the demon isn’t a part of the talent show. But it’s almost time for curtain, and Giles has to run the show. He sends Buffy off in search of the demon, and spots Snyder lurking in the wings. Sid has gone missing, and while Buffy looks for him she finds…
Buffy: “So it probably is one of them, and- and Giles doesn’t know it. He’s with them all right now!”
Xander: “Giles can handle himself. I mean, he is really… smart.“
So, where is this allegedly smart guy?
Giles: “S-shouldn’t it be aimed at my neck?”
Demon Magician: “No. This way your scalp gets sliced off, and your brains just come pouring out.”
Giles: “What exactly is the trick?”
Demon Magician: “Trick?”
Here’s the thing; the first half of the episode leads us to believe that the demon is Morgan, or Morgan’s dummy, or possibly the new Principal. When it turns out to be random Magician Guy, we as an audience should be pissed off at all the red herrings, right? Not necessarily, because this is what this episode has done so brilliantly: in every scene involving the talent show, we have seen Magician Guy. He was in the very opening. He was interviewed by Giles after the murder. We saw his trick with the disappearing cabinet go wrong. He’s been constantly in the background, in the pool of possible demon offenders. So, when the big reveal happens, we don’t feel like it’s coming from out of left field. I know some commenters have said they read these recaps to learn about writing, so there’s a big one for you: you have to put some work into a “gotcha” moment, so the reader/viewer doesn’t feel cheated or like you’re pulling some serious Deus Ex Machina nonsense on them.
So, Magician Guy starts chopping at the rope for the guillotine. I feel like it would have been more effective to just untie it and let go of the rope, but whatever, I’m not a demon or a French executioner. I assume they did it this way for the dramatic potential of watching the rope fray a little more with each strike of the hatchet. It’s nearly cut when Buffy tackles Magician Guy and starts fighting him. The rope breaks, but Xander grabs it, saving Giles from certain death.
One good thing about Xander: he saves people’s lives like crazy. And he never gets any credit for it, which is a shame.
As Buffy fights the now totally demonriffic Magician Guy, aided by Sid- who has a fuck-off huge knife and will star in all of my nightmares from now on- Willow frees Giles from the guillotine. Buffy manages to get the demon under the blade, and they decapitate it. Sid says they have to get the heart in order to make sure the demon is dead.